BACKGROUND: Children with conduct problems (CP) are a heterogeneous group. Those with high levels of callous-unemotional traits (CP/HCU) appear emotionally under-reactive at behavioural and neural levels whereas those with low levels of CU traits (CP/LCU) appear emotionally over-reactive, compared with typically developing (TD) controls. Investigating the degree to which these patterns of emotional reactivity are malleable may have important translational implications. Instructing participants with CP/HCU to focus on the eyes of fearful faces (i.e. the most salient feature) can ameliorate their fear-recognition deficits, but it is unknown whether this is mediated by amygdala response. It is also unknown whether focusing on fearful eyes is associated with increased amygdala reactivity in CP/LCU.
METHOD: Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to measure neural responses to fearful and calm faces in children with CP/HCU, CP/LCU and TD controls (n = 17 per group). On half of trials participants looked for a blue dot anywhere within target faces; on the other half, participants were directed to focus on the eye region.
RESULTS: Reaction time (RT) data showed that CP/LCU were selectively slowed in the fear/eyes condition. For the same condition, CP/LCU also showed increased amygdala and subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC)/orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) responses compared with TD controls. RT and amygdala response to fear/eyes were correlated in CP/LCU only. No effects of focusing on the eye region were observed in CP/HCU.
CONCLUSIONS: These data extend the evidence base suggesting that CU traits index meaningful heterogeneity in conduct problems. Focusing on regulating reactive emotional responses may be a fruitful strategy for children with CP/LCU.
- Callous-unemotional traits
- conduct problems
- reactive aggression